One Person’s Bond Crash is Another’s Income Opportunity

Today’s “Investment News” headline (from Bloomberg) is designed to make you shiver in your income portfolio boots:

“Big fixed income shop prepares for the worst”…

The Bond Portfolio “Window Dressing” sell-off has begun.

Bond funds in general are now holding 8% of assets in cash, the article reports…highest since the financial crisis, and 1999, even. Professional Bond Traders certainly have reason to worry; closed end fund income investors not so much.

The article is reporting fear of lower market values with respect to existing bonds, particularly the higher yield variety…. big players in the bond market are hoarding cash (even selling existing holdings at losses in the process).

Bond Traders and Fund Managers look foolish as inventory market values fall. The cash hoard is their way of preparing to buy similar paper at higher yields sometime in the future and/or to buy back “old” bonds after the fall in price.

In the meantime, they are holding zero interest rate cash in anticipation of the higher yields… and could care less about the negative impact this behavior has on portfolio yields.

This is the result of what I call “Total Return Crossover”… the absurd application of market value growth analysis, instead of income development criteria, to primarily income security portfolios. (An analytical atrocity that is reinforced and encouraged by retirement plan regulators.)

So bond and Income Mutual Fund managers choose to actually lose your money now to look less foolish than the competition later. This “panic selling” by professionals leads to irrational, “knee jerk” reactions in amateurs.

What I did not read in the Bloomberg “disaster scenario” (and this should calm all the frayed nerves) was any indication or expectation of default on the interest paid by the bond issuers. This is the key issue with income investing…

Bonds are corporate and government debt securities, people… so long as they pay the interest why worry about the market value?

Wall Street is always more concerned about appearances than it is about income generation. And the Masters of the Universe really do have a problem… OMG, what this could do to those year-end bonuses…

But we (the average investors out here) can simply reinvest our current CEF income in any number of portfolios of bonds, preferred stocks, loans, notes, etc., selling at discounts, not only from their maturity value, but also from their combined Net Asset Values. Read that again please.

Remember, Closed End Income Fund portfolios aren’t influenced directly by either the fear (or greed) of individual investors… they are under a “protective dome”, if you will, that is subject to all forms of volatility for a vast array of reasons.

But an Income CEF, for example, becomes the totally liquid trading vehicle for a portfolio that could contain hundreds of totally illiquid individual securities… do you believe in magic? Be it Magic, or genius, who cares. We, mere mortals that we are, can jump on the lower prices that chill the blood of Wall Street’s Master Class.

Closed End Fund investors are uniquely positioned to take advantage of both the lower prices and the higher yields that exist right now. Market Cycle Investment Management users have done it before, right?

Remember the fall in CEF prices from early 2007 (higher rates caused these) through early March 2009 (even in the face of the lowest interest rates ever)… and the ensuing rise through October 2011?

Well, do you really think that the anticipated one percentage point rise in interest rates over the next year or so will cause Financial Crisis #2?

Isn’t it great when Wall Street’s pain becomes fuel for the small investor’s gain…. but only if you take advantage of the lower price, higher yield scenario that is staring you in the face as you read this message..

Yes, YOU can be the Master of this Universe!

Lifting the veil on ETFs – Part 2 of 4

Stock ETFs
The first and most popular ETFs track stocks. Many funds track national indexes.

Bond ETFs
Exchange-traded funds that invest in bonds are known as Bond ETFs. They thrive during economic recessions because investors pull their money out of the stock market and move into bonds (for example, government treasury bonds or those issued by companies regarded as financially stable). Because of this cause and effect relationship, the performance of bond ETFs may be indicative of broader economic conditions. There are several advantages to bond ETFs such as the reasonable trading commissions, but this benefit can be negatively offset by other fees and costs.

Actively managed ETFs
Most ETFs are index funds and as such, there is no “management” involved. Some ETFs, however, do have active management as a means to hopefully out-perform the nominal bench-mark index. Actively managed ETFs are at risk from arbitrage activities by market participants who might choose to front run its trades as daily reports of the ETF’s holdings reveals its manager’s trading strategy. The actively managed ETF market has largely been seen as more favorable to bond funds, because concerns about disclosing bond holdings are less pronounced, there are fewer product choices and there is increased appetite for bond products.

Leveraged exchange-traded funds (LETFs), or simply leveraged ETFs, are a special type of ETF that attempt to achieve returns that are more sensitive to market movements than non-leveraged ETFs. Leveraged index ETFs are often marketed as bull or bear funds and because of the leveraging involved, returns and losses are magnified!

ETFs compared to mutual funds

Costs
The first rule to remember – NOTHING is free! Since ETFs trade on an exchange, each transaction is generally subject to a brokerage commission. Commissions depend on the brokerage and which plan is chosen by the customer. Full-service brokers typically charge a percentage commission on both the purchase and sale and may be negotiable depending on the dollar value involved. A typical flat fee schedule from an online brokerage firm $10 to $20, but it can be as low as $0 with certain discount brokers with minimum account values. Due to this commission cost, the amount invested has great impact on costs. Someone who wishes to invest $100 per month may have a significant percentage of their investment destroyed immediately, while for someone making a $200,000 investment, the commission cost may be negligible.

ETFs generally have lower expense ratios than comparable mutual funds. Not only does an ETF have lower shareholder-related expenses, but because it does not have to invest cash contributions or fund cash redemptions these costs are eliminated. Mutual funds may charge 1% to 3%, or more. Index fund (which by the way are NOT the same as ETFs – see future edition of Money Magazine) expense ratios are generally lower, while ETFs are normally in the 0.1% to 1% range.

The cost difference is more evident when compared with mutual funds that charge a front-end or contingent back-end load as ETFs do not have any additional loads at all. Potential redemption and short-term trading fees are examples of other costs that may be associated with mutual funds that do not exist with ETFs. Traders should be very cautious if they plan to trade inverse and leveraged ETFs for short periods of time. Close attention should be paid to transaction costs and daily performance rates as the potential combined compound loss can sometimes go unrecognized and offset potential gains over a longer period of time.

It’s time to lock in your mortgage rate…ASAP!

Most of us dream of the day when we can burn our mortgage. Few of us are prepared for the day when the mortgage burns our dreams of home ownership.

For some, the added expense of renewing their mortgage at a higher rate of interest can come as a shock. The rates offered today are crazy low by historical standards. Young homeowners weren’t subjected to skyrocketing mortgage rates during the early 1980’s and God willing they never will.

I recall being asked – long ago when friends thought I was prescient just because I worked in the financial industry – whether or not one should lock in the mortgage rate for the long term since it seemed like they’d just keep going higher. After all, in 1982 the trajectory of interest rates and mortgage rates had been straight UP!

As you can imagine, my answer at the time was an emphatic “NO!”

Today the opposite is true. The cheapest posted mortgage rates are the ones with the shortest terms or are variable. Plug those rates into your calculator and the payment schedule seems like a dream come true. Unfortunately interest rates over short time horizons can be surprisingly volatile. It’s possible just one or a few years later you’re burdened with payments that are no longer manageable.

In March of 1987 the average mortgage rate was close to 10%, but by March of 1990 had climbed to 13.5%. The monthly payment for a $500,000 mortgage at 10% (crude calculations but I am lazy) might have been around $4800. But at 13.5% would be nearly $6000. If you or your partner were lucky enough to get a $15,000 raise over the course of the term (say 3-year in this example) then things would be okay, but otherwise your consumption (food, child’s education, gasoline) or savings plan would suffer. Worst case, you’d have to sell the house.

Strangely enough, housing prices can rise during the early stages of rising interest rates as people who were planning to buy a house begin to hurry up the process, hoping to get a more attractive mortgage rate (before they go any higher). Unfortunately, the panic to buy is short-lived and soon there is a veritable drought of buyers who can’t afford to hold mortgages at the higher rates. Suddenly, there’s a glut of houses for sale, and if you can’t manage the higher monthly payments you have to sell the house at a loss. OUCH!

The process of rising interest rates has already begun in earnest. Historically, mortgage yields are slightly above bond yields. Bond yields go up, mortgage rates go up too. Financial institutions have responded to rising bond yields (see graph) by raising their mortgage rates in recent months as I’m sure you’ve noticed. At present, mortgage rates haven’t risen as much though, because these institutions continue to compete with one another by offering incentives and there’s also a bit of a lag as head office communicates its changes in corporate strategy down to the marketing departments.

There is still a bit of time to buy your dream home and walk away with a low-rate mortgage, but not nearly as much time as you might think. You might be reading that governments are inclined to keep the ‘bank rate’ (or discount rate which is the rate of interest the central bank charges the commercial banks to borrow money) low, in order to help the economy along. This policy is long-in-the-tooth already, and central banks cannot continue lending money to the banking system at a ridiculously low rate, when the interest rates the central banks have to pay to raise money for government spending (bond rates) keep rising. The strain on the country’s finances will become too onerous, and unwanted inflation inevitable.

If you haven’t taken advantage of low mortgage rates yet, go ahead and lock up your rate at the lending institution for as long a term as possible. And if you’ve been holding off buying that new car, don’t wait. I’ve been in the financial industry long enough to know a good thing when I see it and I took advantage of one of those generous 0% financing offers – I figure I may not see another opportunity like it in my lifetime.

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

Visit me at LinkedIn.

 

Mutual Fund Mania – Choose wisely during RRSP season!

Usually the first vehicle of choice for new investors is a mutual fund. In days of yore, which in the investment industry is more than five years ago, investors usually bought equity funds but in more recent times balanced funds have grown more popular and even bond funds have attracted money.

Oftentimes, the first mutual fund experience is a disappointing one. There’s a reason for this. People intuitively want to be associated with success, so their first mutual fund will have these characteristics:

  • A great track record of top quartile performance over at least three to five years.
  • Billions of dollars invested in it, so it is “safe.”
  • Offered by an investment firm with a long and “distinguished” history.

Many years ago, there was much less data readily available and few statistical tools at one’s disposal, but I was curious and decided to examine a group of funds over time to see what their performance looked like. What I discovered is represented in the chart. There were no exceptions; every fund in my sample followed this same pattern.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to interpret a picture. If you invest in the fund when it’s a dog (ranks very poorly compared to other funds), the odds are great that given time it will be a top performer soon enough.

The problem is that most investors will pick a top performer. However, the top performer will soon become a dog, and the investor will be unhappy.

A great track record might actually guarantee poor performance.

When it comes to your money, intuition sucks. You “intuitively” steer towards something that “feels good.”

There is enough publicly available data nowadays to help you find a few funds that suit your tastes and examine their performance patterns. What suits your tastes may include funds that are easy to buy in and out of, those you have read about in the press, whose portfolio manager sounds smart on TV, or you may prefer socially responsible funds. When one of the funds that does occasionally perform very well has been in a slump over the past year or two, buy it. After the performance has improved over the course of a couple of years and you’re happy with the results, consider selling (or redeeming) it when the fund is in the top of the rankings (or wins an award) and buy a different fund that is in a temporary slump.

Being a curious sort, I once had the urge to see if award-winning funds followed the same pattern. After all, if someone wants a top-performing fund, wouldn’t they head straight for the ones that have just won awards for their outstanding performance?

I looked at the award-winning funds in any given year, and then checked their performance just one year later. Rather than examine every category (there are just too many nowadays) I stuck to basic Canadian equity, U.S. equity, small cap, international equity. Included were “thematic” funds popular at the time, such as ‘precious metals’ and the ‘dividend and income’ funds. Here are a couple of examples of what I usually found:

Results:

  • 100% of the winners were either 1st or 2nd quartile funds. The next year, 88% of these had fallen to 3rd or 4th quartile.
  • All the former 3rd quartile funds (dogs) rose to 1st quartile (stars) in the following year.

Winning an award (being a top performer) is not an indication of how that fund will rank in terms of its future performance, even in the following year. In fact, the odds are awfully good that your 1st or 2nd quartile pick will be below the median or worse one year later. Interesting! If there’s a lesson, I suppose it’s simply that funds should be bought because they meet your objectives, not because they’ve been performing well recently.

It’s not important to understand why this roller coaster occurs for mutual funds, it just does. Markets change, so, for example, when a growth fund invested primarily in technology stocks suffers, it’s no doubt because the upward trend in technology stocks, or their popularity among the herd, has either stopped or deteriorated. Apple is a prime example in the news right now.

Portfolio managers are just people working for people. I’ve witnessed the following scenario occur time and again:

  • Fund performance begins to soar.
  • Fund attracts lots of new money.
  • Marketing folks want more and more time from portfolio manager for meetings.
  • Money pours into the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager’s head swells (the “I’m a genius” syndrome).
  • Performance begins to deteriorate.
  • Money leaves the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager has to sell the fund’s best stocks (there are still buyers for these).
  • Performance sucks, and it takes two to three years for things to get back to normal.

Size really doesn’t matter…unless the fund is humongous.

A thinking person should be able to figure out that it doesn’t take a big fund or a big fund company to provide good performing funds. Think about it. Do you shop at the big box stores because the level of service is better? Is the quality of the merchandise better? No. You shop there because the economy of scale for the store allows them to buy products at a lower cost. They can order in bigger volumes and squeeze their suppliers. They then pass these savings to their customers.

Larger financial institutions enjoy similar economies of scale. Of course, the transactions and administration costs of the bank or insurance company are lower, and these benefits might come your way in the form of lower fees and expenses, but we’re not talking about buying lawnmowers. Rates of return on funds managed nimbly and intelligently can make those fees and expenses pale by comparison.

Bigger is safer possibly when you’re banking, but legitimate capital management companies are structured so that they never really touch your money. The custodial (where the money is physically held) and administrative (recordkeeping) functions are usually provided to these firms by big banks or huge financial institutions anyway—for safety and regulatory reasons and it makes the potential for fraud near impossible.

The reason why large financial services companies got into the fund management business was simply economics. They were providing banking, custodial, and administrative services to mutual fund and other asset management companies anyway, so why not also earn management fees by offering their own mutual funds and private wealth management services?

Take it from someone who knows from experience. Managing a massive quantity of money in one fund is much more difficult for a portfolio manager. You can only buy big companies. A portfolio manager will try to buy the best big companies, but since everyone else with big portfolios is doing the same thing, it’s not like you can outsmart them. It’s sort of like playing poker with jacks, queens, and kings being the only cards in the deck. If the three other players see three kings on the table, everyone knows you still have one in your hand.

Applying some discipline is important when directing your savings and will spare you much grief. For several years since the financial crisis, investors have swarmed into bond (see chart – it shows the net Sales of bond mutual funds) and balanced funds because of their strong relative performance and are considered to be less risky. Even today buying into income-oriented funds ‘feels good’ – everyone else is doing it, past performance is good and the fright we all experienced during the financial crisis still stings a bit.

Equity funds have been avoided for years – constantly redeemed – despite the fact the stock market returns have been outstanding since the crisis more or less ended (or at least stabilized). Now that the past returns are looking better, investors will be shifting money out of the bond funds (and perhaps balanced funds as well) and chasing the top performing equity funds.

This is an inferior strategy. If you examine the best ‘rated’ funds you will find they hold more dividend paying and income securities and will likely drop in the rankings very soon after you buy them.

With RRSP season comes a plethora of marketing campaigns and firms will be pushing us to buy their best performing funds (we are so quick to buy what ‘feels good’). Since you won’t see many advertisements for those not doing so well today, but are likely to do very well tomorrow, it would be wise to do a bit of homework before buying in. Good luck!

Mal Spooner